A Fond Farewell

The steppe of Central Anatolia is not entirely flat, but it is very barren. Very large towns are interspersed with nothing much at all. The route is a grind, and isn’t as rewarding as the scenic coast and mountains, but has its own charm to me. This is unspectacular Turkey, without anything to draw tourists, but with the same warmth and kindness from people as everywhere else. Not much beer though. Inland it has become very noticeable that it’s difficult to find places that serve alcohol, and when we do see them, they are generally full of older men, and have the atmosphere and smells of Working men’s clubs. And the roads are not as well kept here; there were some particularly godforsaken ones around Aksaray.

We finally made it into the town of Nevsehir, which gave us a short ride to the centre of Cappadocia, known for its distinctive “fairy chimney” rock formations, and one of the highlights of our travelling. Richard got a puncture riding there, the third one in the same tube. We tried to change it, rather than fixing it on the road, and discovered that we have brought the wrong inner tubes with us, so we have no spares. We do nothing but ride bikes and carry a few bags, but we can’t even manage to have our shit together even when we have so little shit.

The roads were incredibly quiet, and we kept expecting to see hordes of tourists and the sky full of hot air balloons, one of the things this area is known for, but they never materialised. Richard saw one take off early in the morning (me: asleep) but none the whole rest of our stay. We decided to base ourselves in one spot in Cappadocia, and it was great to be able to explore without the bags weighing us down. We spent the first day riding to see Ortahisar rock castle, then past the eastern outskirts of Göreme. On our unladen bikes we were able to get off road, where usually only the quad bikes go, and get up close to some of the rock formations, which was amazing. We were also able to ride off road through Love Valley, though it was a bit of a slog on very sandy  tracks, then walk round Uçhisar rock castle, which was well worth exploring. The highlights of the other two days were the ride through the Zelve Valley, which was incredible, and the Göreme open air museum. The latter was easily the busiest place we went to, but overall the area was eerily quiet, and we are very lucky that through a combination of things which have affected tourism, we’ve been able to see this otherworldly place without crowds.  Even better, the evenings are now getting chilly. After being blasted with heat for 4 months, it’s nice to feel a change of seasons.

Leaving Cappadocia, we headed West for the first time in ages. The overcast weather has set in, and there were lots of horrible bumpy roads covered with bone jarring chippings. If anything, the random acts of kindness have been more frequent here. On one dull and drizzly day, we were flagged down by a guy in a car who gave us some halva sweets, and then at the top of a hill by a lorry driver, who had stopped in a lay-by to take a break. He made us tea and gave us bread and some honey from the bees he keeps in his time off. We are also cheered up most days by some of the passing coaches bearing the company name Kamil Koc, which causes more hilarity than it should for people our age.

The towns along the way have been fairly non-descript, as has the cycling, although Eskesehir was really nice, with lots of cafes and restaurants by the river. But it’s everyday Turkey and full of unassuming but welcoming people. Our spoken Turkish and our understanding has got better as we’ve gone on, and I’m glad we didn’t do this route the other way round or we might have struggled, since English is pretty widely spoken on the coast, but not so much here. We’ve mostly been eating in very small kebab and soup places, and I think perhaps because we are a novelty, people have been rightly keen to show off food, with our plates being piled high.

As we’ve carried on towards the West, Autumn colours and temperatures have really set in. I’m wearing a coat in the mornings for the first time in ages, and slightly regretting only having sandals to wear on my feet. We were expecting the few days riding before we reached Istanbul to be purely functional, but Turkey keeps serving up great surprises. Heading towards Bursa, the scenery was really lush and beautiful. Although the ride through the city itself was a stressful slog through intense traffic and smog, and being constantly cut up by buses and cars pulling in and out in front of us.

We may not always make the best decisions, but knew that cycling into Istanbul would probably be lethal, so we stopped in the town of Mudanya so we could get a ferry across the sea of Marmara instead. Richard had his second haircut in Turkey (£3.24.) For someone who mostly shuns social interaction, he had a fine time sharing with the barber maps and photos of the places we’d been. The barber was insistent that at his age he must have children, so he made up a daughter, who is apparently 20 but doesn’t have a name.

We arrived in Istanbul almost a week ago. A wonderful friend of mine, Glayne, flew out to visit us. It was amazing to see someone from home, and to have someone other than Richard to talk to. We spent a few days relaxing with lots of great food and beer, and doing enough sightseeing and walking to justify that. The remaining thing to do before we wrap up here was to get bike boxes and get ready for a flight. Packing up the bikes has been a complete nightmare, but we were fortunately near some tool sellers and bike shops who were able to help.

We’ve had plenty of time to reflect on the two and a half months or so we’ve spent here. Turkey is a vast and diverse country, and while I’m happy with what we’ve done, I would love to come back and spend time riding in the far East and North. The cycling here has been physically tough, but the kindness of the people we’ve met and the places we’ve seen have made all the pain worthwhile. We’re lucky that we will almost certainly be able to come back to this amazing country. In the meantime, if I’m ever jaded or doubting the goodness of people, I only need to think of this place.

A playlist for the ride:


The Kindness of Strangers

I have been tired and lazy about keeping this up to date. Now we are inland in the Autumn, the baking hot days and amazing coastline are a distant memory. But back to where we left off: We took a very pleasant couple of days off in Dalyan, a very chill place considering it is a tourist hub. We chatted for a couple of evenings with Veysi, a restaurant manager who told us all about his travels, taught us some things about life and politics in modern Turkey, and inspired me to one day ride to Nordkapp.

Dalyan is the first of the popular holiday towns on or near the Levantine sea, the next one up is Fethiye. The ride through and after Fethiye was full of lots of both tourist and industrial traffic, on a very busy road. It was the only time I’ve felt a bit unsafe cycling here. Even though the roads were wide, there were no lines, so the usual safe little shoulder we claim wasn’t marked out. We took a slightly quieter road after this experience and had a long day in the sun, and I was feeling a bit under the weather. We were now scaling the medium climbs with ease, but the coast roads zig and zag and we found ourselves with a nasty headwind. We pulled over to a bus stop, and a pickup truck pulled alongside us. The guy got out and went into some nearby bushes and then looked like he was climbing a tree. Weird, but none of our business. Then he emerged from a grove and handed us some figs to eat, so he must have been up the tree picking them. A few minutes later, a couple on a moped pulled up, and through some signs and gestures, we realised they were saying that they’d seen us a few times today and had stopped to say hello. It’s a big boost to know we are fast enough to play at tag team with a moped.

The next few days we had our biggest climbs yet in quick succession, breaking our record each day. The worst hill was ridiculously steep, I could barely turn the pedals in the lowest gear. Thankfully we’d stocked up on drinks, because it was a bit of a barren run. We then had a descent through the town of Kalkan, and followed the D400 road along the coast. It was spectacular, with perfectly clear sea, beautiful coves, and a giant turtle sighting by Richard. It was easily the most scenic road I’ve ever cycled.

It was undulating, and as the day wore on, the earlier big climb took its toll, and at some point my legs just gave up the ghost. Other days the muscles ache and cycling is hard, but not to the point I couldn’t push through. This time there was just no power or energy left at all. We stopped at a bench in the shade, with a family having a picnic nearby. After a few minutes a young woman came over, with a tray of tea for us. I couldn’t even express to her how grateful we were, but I hope she understood. When I got up to return the tray, the mother came over and pressed a large plastic tub towards me, which I tried to refuse, but she insisted. It was full of fresh grapes.

At the end of the day, Richard discovered that he had a slow puncture, the only one so far after about 6,000km. We found the tear in the inner tube, but it wasn’t clean, it just looked like something had worn rather than punctured through. It took another couple of days, and another puncture, to get rid of a bit of wire which had worked its way through the tyre at an angle, which made it difficult to find.

After riding through Kas, the road cuts inland. Cycling along the coast is beautiful, but inland the scenery was great too, and even though we took a fairly major route we had it all to ourselves for long stretches. It was eerie being able to weave around all the lanes with not a soul in sight. Inevitably this made me wonder what would happen if the zombie apocalypse occurs when we are up here away from everything. We would just be blissfully cycling away while everyone else is eating brains. We would probably fair pretty badly though when we reached civilisation, as once the downhill runs out, I ride so slowly I could be caught by almost anything faster than a tree. We only have a pocket knife and a small folding knife to defend ourselves, and they will be useless because I’m a coward. We have no skills or knowledge to survive in the wild. Rolling my own cigarettes is probably the standout survival skill that I possess. It turns out that Richard hasn’t thought about these things, and sometimes I envy that.

Despite finding the ride along Turkey’s Levantine coast to be stunning and rewarding, we didn’t really love any of the towns. Patara and Kas were nice enough, but we’d hoped to fall in love with somewhere that we’d want to stay for a few days and relax. We’d heard Cirali was one of the most amazing beaches in Turkey, so we took a detour there (long descent in, painful climb out,) but it wasn’t our kind of place. We did really like Demre, maybe because it was just an ordinary town and we liked wandering around seeing ordinary people just going about their business.

After Demre, the road turned north around Kumluca, and there remained one final beast of a climb before things flattened out and the traffic built towards Antalya. We did a long day to get to and get clear of that city. There were two tunnels which wiped away the minor hills we were expecting, so it turned out to be the flattest day we’d had riding in Turkey. But the endless heavy traffic became unbearable, and the main road felt dangerous now with the constant slip roads and on ramps, which are always hair raising to negotiate. It became not just unenjoyable but not worth it. We both knew it was time to head north, away from the coast and the string of resorts now lined up along it.

We turned inland feeling satisfied about the change of scenery, and eager to reach Cappadocia, one of Turkey’s great jewels and one of the things left that we desperately want to see. The Southern coast of Turkey here is separated from inland Anatolia by the Taurus mountains, but we were just far enough West to avoid the biggest of them. The roads are thankfully wide and smooth, and now the heat is easing off as we head into Autumn, they were manageable. We were surprised with how verdant they were after a summer of searing weather. Even quite close up it looks like folded carpets of trees down into deep valleys, with villages nestled impossibly amongst them. It seemed like another country from where we’d just been. And then, not two day’s ride later, the steppes of Central Anatolia. Barren, arid plains for as far as the eye can see. The vastness of it is somehow more dramatic than the jagged coastline or the soaring mountains. I hope I don’t live to regret losing my rag at some busy coastal roads and giving them up to cross this. But we should be able to cover a lot of ground quickly, and at the end of it will be a fairytale landscape like nothing else in the world.

A playlist for the ride: